Topics: Ethical Living | Relationships

Family estrangement a ‘silent epidemic’

There is no easy fix for fractured families — and Canada is lacking in resources for those seeking help

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(Illustration: Steven P. Hughes)

When my family moved from Alberta to Ontario 26 years ago, they did so in two trips. First, my father and three older siblings drove across the Prairies in a grey minivan littered with McDonald’s wrappers. A moving truck followed behind them. Then, a week later, my mother flew from Calgary to Toronto with me in her arms. She says all she did during that flight was hold me and cry. Alberta was her home, and moving meant putting two entire provinces between herself and one of the most important people in her life: her father.

During the first year of our new life in Ontario, my mother told my siblings continuously: “We are all we have here.” In a sense, that was true, and our family was very close as I was growing up. I adored my parents and idolized my siblings. When I heard classmates talk about not getting along with their sisters or hating their mother, my heart broke. I couldn’t imagine living in a house that didn’t feel like home. And I could never have predicted that as adults we would become estranged from my brother, that he would separate himself from us entirely for years. 

My brother’s estrangement was a slow, painful process. There was no big blowout that we could point to as the catalyst. Even today, I can’t give a straightforward answer as to why my brother estranged himself, and I doubt he could either. There were too many variables, too many people involved and too many unaddressed arguments for me to say with confidence what caused the separation. What I do know is that for nearly five years, communication quieted a little each day, the ties holding my family together fraying with each monosyllabic text or unanswered phone call. 

Eventually, my brother was gone entirely, and for years it was as if a cold front passed through my parents’ house whenever someone mentioned his name. During my brother’s absence, I fell in love, earned a master’s degree and visited two new continents. But all along, I couldn’t escape the terrifying, recurring question: will I ever see my brother again?

More on Broadview: When friends decide to co-parent

Mine is one of countless families that has experienced the heartbreaking loss of estrangement, which the English researcher Lucy Blake defines as “the breakdown of a supportive relationship between family members.” According to one British study, approximately one in five families in the United Kingdom will experience estrangement at some point in their lives. 

It’s hard to say what the corresponding numbers are in Canada; there haven’t been any similar studies looking into the issue here. In my experience, however, I’ve yet to meet a family that hasn’t been touched by estrangement. I have friends who haven’t spoken to their mothers in years; a classmate who didn’t know where her uncle was living; and a confidant who admitted his life would be much easier if the sibling causing his mother such pain would just disappear. 

Families like mine are common, it seems, but despite the relative prevalence of estrangement, people suffering through it often describe feeling judged, stigmatized and misunderstood. As a result, they tend not to talk about their experiences, a reticence that has led to what some experts have called a “silent epidemic” affecting many of today’s families: a wave of strained relationships and estrangements that are going unacknowledged, and thus without any semblance of support.

Estrangement is a loss, no matter which way you look at it. But for some, that loss brings much-needed separation from relationships that were abusive, either physically, sexually or emotionally. For others, estrangement just brings pain, and may lead to agonized ruminations over what turned a relationship sour, and how that might have been avoided. 

Regardless, anyone experiencing estrangement may find themselves looking for supportive communities to help them work through their pain, or for guidance on how to navigate their relationships. And right now, there aren’t a lot of Canadian options outside of private therapy, perhaps because we are still afraid to acknowledge just how messy and complicated family life really is.

Article met tsunami of support

In the fall of 2018, I walked into a weathered brick building down the street from King’s Cross Station in London. The building had been repurposed as a workspace for small companies and startups, and it was the home of Stand Alone, a grassroots charity dedicated to supporting individuals who are estranged from their family or a key family member. Founded in 2013 by Becca Bland, who is estranged from her parents, Stand Alone was the first organization of its kind in Europe, if not the world. I met with Bland in the building’s busy lobby, and we huddled together in the corner swapping family hurts as she sipped her tea. 

People used to tell Bland that she only gets one mom, but she never had the kind of relationship with her mother that she saw on TV. She prefers not to share details of her early family life, but divulges that it was plagued by incessant arguing. For much of her childhood, Bland was raised by her grandmother. Her parents weren’t interested in mediation. Bland lost contact with them at the age of 25 and hasn’t spoken to them since, 11 years and counting. 

“I would say that ultimately I estranged myself to really help my self-esteem and to get out of a cycle that was very toxic for me in terms of how much criticism and negativity I was around,” Bland told me. 

Despite the positive aspects of her newfound independence, Bland still felt shame and embarrassment about her family situation, and she kept it a secret to avoid the judgment she expected to face if she shared her story.

Lynda Ashbourne, a couple and family therapist who teaches at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says the common expectation that family is an unfailing source of support in people’s lives contributes to the stigma and lack of understanding around estrangement. “We still carry this sort of ideal that a family looks a certain way and that family relationships are supposed to be kind of unilaterally positive,” she says. “And they aren’t.” 

As a therapist, Ashbourne knows well that family members can become destructive toward each other, but she says a continuing attachment to idealized notions of family makes it difficult for people to empathize with anyone who is experiencing estrangement. 

That forces many estranged family members into a place of isolation and silence. In Bland’s case, she even went so far as lying about her situation. One Christmas, when visiting her then-boyfriend’s family, she invented a story about her parents living in Australia to explain why she wouldn’t be seeing them during the holidays. 

As she would later write in a column for the Guardian about the experience, Bland spent the visit side-stepping questions about her parents and tormenting herself over the lies she was burrowing into. She even caught herself momentarily envying her boyfriend’s relationship with his mother, wishing she could have something similar. 

“But the thought of seeing my parents was, and is, much more anxiety-provoking,” she wrote in the Guardian article. “I would pay money to avoid them, really. And I definitely couldn’t have said that at the table.”

Bland wrote her Guardian column because she wanted to open up more dialogue about estrangement. “If people were more relaxed about using the word estrangement, it would not only be helpful for those who are already estranged but might also help those who need to walk away but are held back by fear of stigma,” she wrote. “Indeed, I didn’t [walk] away from my own situation at a younger age than I did, for fear of being judged. I didn’t dare.”

The article was met with a tsunami of support. Emails rushed in from all over the United Kingdom, flooding Bland’s inbox with messages of gratitude and understanding from people who spoke of feeling liberated by knowing they weren’t the only ones suffering an estrangement. 

“I realized that my article had unintentionally forwarded a narrative that was missing when it comes to family — the untidy part, the upsetting part and the part that we often fear,” Bland later wrote in a study Stand Alone helped to produce. 

The unexpected response to her article led Bland to realize that there was a large, mostly silent, community of people experiencing estrangement in the United Kingdom, and that they needed a formal voice and source of support. So she founded Stand Alone. 

“Alongside the guilt and doubt that I’d made the right decision, my reaction for a long time was fear.”

Amie Key

Operating in London and two other U.K. locations, Stand Alone works to reduce the stigma and isolation that come with family estrangement. Since 2013, the staff of one has expanded to five in London and nine in total. The organization offers workshops, recommends counsellors and hosts social events. It also provides online resources and advocates for the rights of estranged individuals.

One population that Stand Alone focuses on in particular is university students. Beginning post-secondary education is a significant transitional period for any young adult, but it can be especially difficult for those experiencing estrangement. Research published in 2015 by Bland and the Unite Foundation revealed that estranged university students experience significantly more financial pressure than students who are still connected to their family. University also tends to be a time when the wounds are fresh — according to the report, estranged students generally remove themselves from damaging situations between the ages of 16 and 19. 

Amie Key, a 22-year-old student at Durham University in England, cut off contact with her mother nearly four years ago, and last spoke to her father when she was 13. While Key is “not entirely sure why” she is disconnected from her father, she writes in an email that childhood abuse, and the depression and anxiety that have stayed with her as a result, led to her estranging herself from her mother. 

“Living at home and being in contact with my mother was hugely damaging to my mental health, affecting my academic work and other relationships,” she writes. When she went to university at the age of 18, “experiencing independence for the first time ever,” Key says she realized she had to terminate her relationship with her mother.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision,” she writes. “Alongside the guilt and doubt that I’d made the right decision, my reaction for a long time was fear — fear that I’d be judged for ending a relationship that is usually considered unbreakable.”

Key’s mental health deteriorated after she sent her mother an “estrangement email.” She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, was prescribed antidepressants and began cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling. She writes that there was also a brief period around exam time at the end of the academic year when she became suicidal. 

It was shortly after this, while she was arranging her finances for her second year of university, that Key found Stand Alone. In the United Kingdom, estranged students have to provide proof that they don’t have a relationship with their parents in order to access student loans. Stand Alone has produced a finance guide for estranged students that is posted on its website, which Key used while preparing her loan application. 

“Beyond allowing me to get the money to stay in university and complete my degree, Stand Alone has also offered me a lot of other support. It was through them that I discovered the term ‘estranged’, which I have been able to use to explain my situation to others and to realize I’m not alone in experiencing it.”

Key became a fixture in Stand Alone support groups and has since done a great deal of advocacy of her own at Durham University. “Being involved with Stand Alone has honestly changed my life,” she writes. 

In Canada, incoming students who are estranged are also often required to provide “proof” of their family breakdown in order to qualify for student loans. But a general Google search into financial assistance for estranged students in the country renders few Canadian-specific programs — the majority are from the United Kingdom. Bland says her charity frequently receives messages from Canadians saying there isn’t really anything there for them in Canada; they’ve been forgotten. She says she would love to expand her services across the Atlantic, but that’s a work in progress. 

‘Like a nuclear bomb’

In situations such as Key’s, estrangement is the direct result of issues like abuse or neglect. But in other cases, according to Stand Alone’s research, estrangement comes as a result of more complicated factors, like mismatched expectations of the relationship or a clash of personalities and values. 

Recently, I spoke with someone who has experienced estrangement with three separate members of his family over the last 20 years. At different times, Roger* has been shut out by his father and his middle son, and he is currently no longer speaking to his half-brother. But Roger, who lives in Ontario, says his estrangement from his son was by far the most difficult to endure. 

When Roger’s son was 19, the family had a female exchange student living with them. The son began a romantic relationship with her, despite Roger making it clear that she was off limits. After speaking with numerous family counsellors, Roger and his wife decided to send the exchange student back to Europe. Roger wasn’t sure that was the right way to resolve things, but his wife was adamant that it was. The day Roger’s son learned what happened, he packed up his things and left. 

“It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off in our house,” Roger remembers. “Everybody — like literally everybody — left the house that day, and it was myself and my cat. And it was like, ‘Okay so what just happened to our family?’”

Roger felt frustration, sadness and guilt, and his pain was exacerbated by watching the rest of his family become ensnared in the conflict. He was caught between his wife and his son, and his other children were caught between their brother and their parents.

“Neither of [his siblings] agreed with what he had done. They supported him as a brother but not what he did,” Roger says. “It had a devastating impact on everyone.”

The collateral damage suffered by Roger’s other two children is common in estranged families, Ashbourne says. Alliances, or what she calls “loyalty binds,” come into play when relationships between individual family members are tested in this way, and they often contribute greatly to the unrest in an estranged home. 

“Everybody — like literally everybody — left the house that day, and it was myself and my cat. And it was like, ‘Okay so what just happened to our family?’”

Roger

To this day, Roger believes the whole conflict could have been avoided, but he isn’t entirely sure how. “I had this belief that there weren’t just two choices,” he recalls. “There must have been a third alternative that we [hadn’t] explored.”  

Eventually, through therapy and time, Roger’s family did reconnect. And Roger’s son married the exchange student, though the marriage didn’t last, Roger says. 

“Fast-forward to today,” he says, “and I would say we have a good relationship. We do communicate openly, frequently, and I think part of it is that he’s mature now.”

Roger’s experience illustrates other patterns. Nataxja Cini, an Ottawa-based social worker who has handled many cases of family estrangement, has noticed that cutting off contact with one’s family is often a learned behaviour. 

“If [one of] your parents was estranged from their family, you would be more likely to use that type of coping mechanism in dealing with conflict and unresolved issues between you and your siblings, and you and your parents, or you and anybody,” she says.

Previous experience of estrangement might be more of a risk factor than a direct cause, but consider Roger’s family history. He had already been estranged once before: his father had cut him off after taking offence to some of the religious elements in Roger and his wife’s wedding ceremony. That rift lasted about two years and was mended shortly before Roger’s father died. Then, there was the exchange student incident. Now, Roger isn’t speaking with his half-brother, a decision he made after decades of what he describes as unreciprocated emotional and financial support. 

“I believe that kids don’t do what you say they should do, they… copy what you do. And this is something I don’t want them to copy,” Roger says. He doesn’t think severing contact is an acceptable way to handle conflict, “yet here I am defending having done it,” referring to his estrangement from his half-brother. And although he’s had a lot of experiences of estrangement, Roger remains stumped by its complexity.

Indeed, no one interviewed for this story could provide me with a quick fix for estrangement. “In my professional and personal experience, families are messy,” Ashbourne says. And messiness usually means there are no easy solutions, only your own intuition and wherever it leads you. 

‘We’re all a little scared’

Once Bland and I finished our conversation back in the autumn of 2018, I began to put on my coat and tuck away my tape recorder and notepad. About a month earlier, my brother had offered an olive branch to the family, a chance to move forward. Everyone in the family had received a text asking to meet in small groups, instead of diving into a full-fledged family reunion. I still don’t know what prompted this outreach. Just as I don’t know what it was that made him want to remove himself from our family in the first place. 

Bland gently inquired about my brother as she walked me to the door. I explained that my family and I were all fairly hesitant, nervous even, as to what his seemingly random outreach meant. “I think we’re all a little scared and not entirely sure what to do,” I admitted. What would this new reality look like? Would my parents have any input on the terms of this newfound relationship? Would I? It felt a lot like walking back across a suspension bridge that barely held us up the first time we tried to cross.

She looked back at me with listening eyes and nodded compassionately, undoubtedly a reflex after several years of being on the receiving end of similar stories. 

“Keep yourself safe,” she told me. 

And with that, I walked out of that brick building and onto the streets of London, armed with the knowledge that it’s up to me to decide what my definition of family looks like.

This article first appeared in the October 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Fractured families.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Lauren Sproule is a Canadian freelance multimedia journalist based in London, England.

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  • says:

    The media is often responsible for telling us what is normal for a family, Here Come The Nelson's right to the Conner's. I recall a friend of mine saying "One of three people are crazy - look around, if everyone else seems normal - you're it."
    We all live in a fallen world. What we have is normal for most, not perfect, but normal. And as the article suggests, we can change it. In reality, we should attempt to change it.
    If this is an issue for the physical family, regrettably, it certainly shows up ugly for the Spiritual family and the Church.

  • says:

    I used to feel guilty about distancing myself from several relatives for years, but the guilt was preferable to their company. Then books about dealing with toxic relatives became more common, and advice columnists began to take the view that family relationships can be abusive, not just physically but psychologically, and, if harmful to our well-being, should be avoided. Public spokespersons, usually on the right of the political spectrum, who idealize "the family", are still around, but nowadays, as this article shows, escaping certain family relationships may be the healthy, if difficult route to take.

  • says:

    There are cases where people reconnect via family trees on sites like Ancestry. For unknown reasons, my father cut off his brother in the 1950s. Then not long ago, his two daughters discovered us via the family my sister put together. They had photos we had never seen, visiting the brother’s house. Another brother of my father has disappeared.

    Then there’s gaining siblings you didn’t know you had until you discover them on DNA sites like 23andme. My sister put herself on 23andme. One day a genetic half-brother on our father’s side contacted her. He was younger than me and older than my sister. He was the result of a liaison of our father with another woman who was married too and put her husband’s name on the birth certificate. He was put up for adoption at 10 months of age. He eventually found his mother’s side but they wanted nothing to do with him. On a positive note he said he the adoptive parents provided a happy upbringing, including adopting a baby girl as a sibling.

    The second scenario is likely more unusual.

  • says:

    Excellent and currently universal.
    For me as well.

  • says:

    I feel very estranged from my brother and sister-in-law. I live in Calgary, Alberta they live outside of Ottawa, Ontario. I'm never
    Invited home for a visit. My 93 yr old Mum lives right near them. When my father was alive he always had me home every 2 yrs for a visit. I feel so unloved and unwanted and I have not done anything to warrant this. I feel so alone here without family.

  • says:

    I feel very estranged from my brother and sister-in-law. Never invited home for a visit. I live in Alberta, they in Ontario. My 93 yr old Mum lives there as well. I've done nothing to them. When my Dad was alive he brought me home every two year. I feel so alone and lonely. I've kept up contact but they have started not to respond. Don't know what to do.

  • says:

    This is my first time ever reading anything on family estrangement. I have experienced from my father and the article captured the range of emotions I felt and still feel. When I volunteered as a facilitator in an anxiety and depression group, many clients struggled with having to distance themselves from family or being estranged from them. I will share this article with the group so they know how not alone they are. Thank you very much for writing about this and so well.